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Infectious disease spread risk if UK leaves EU early warning system

Effective replacement after Brexit needed, warns Brexit Health Alliance

Caroline White

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The UK risks the spread of antibiotic-resistant and other infectious diseases if it leaves the European Union's (EU) early warning system after Brexit without an effective replacement, the Brexit Health Alliance has warned.

The Alliance, which brings together the NHS, medical research, industry, patients and public health bodies insists that public health issues must be addressed upfront by Brexit negotiators.

Published today, the Alliance’s latest Brexit briefing calls for the EU and UK negotiators to ensure that after Brexit, mutually beneficial co-ordination continues to safeguard the public on both sides of the Channel from health threats.

The UK’s proximity to Europe and high levels of cross-border travel mean cases of infectious disease are regularly imported from other EU countries and vice-versa.

Outbreaks of measles in England and Wales have been repeatedly linked to ongoing outbreaks in countries in Eastern Europe while, in 2017, an outbreak of salmonella in several European countries was linked to Polish eggs.

Tracking these outbreaks requires collaboration between the UK and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which also assesses risks from around the world, including the Ebola outbreak in Africa and an assessment of the risks to health at the upcoming football World Cup in Russia.

In a recent highly publicised case of a man who contracted ‘the world’s worst super-gonorrhoea’ and brought it back to the UK, Public Health England worked alongside the ECDC and the World Health Organisation to effectively track the infection.

Unless the UK can negotiate continued access to ECDC systems after Brexit, there are likely to be delays in communication in cases of emerging risk or crisis management situations, resulting in delays to regulatory and other action.

The government has pledged to maintain standards and ensure a high level of health protection but the Brexit Health Alliance fears that in the overall “give and take” of negotiations public health may not rate high on the agenda and that the opportunity to maintain robust co-operation may be lost.

Niall Dickson, co-chair of the Brexit Health Alliance, said that the government’s commitment to maintaining the highest standards of health protection after the UK leaves the EU was welcome.

“But we should be under no illusion – if we fail to reach a good agreement on the EU and UK’s future relationship, that could be a significant threat to public health. This cannot and should not be ignored,” he emphasised.

“Infectious diseases do not respect borders and we need to tackle them together. It should be blindingly obvious to all concerned that it is in all our interests to maintain these vital links.”

Strong co-ordination in dealing with cross-border health threats and alignment with EU standards for food, safety of medicines, transplant organs and the environment were essential, he suggested.

“The negotiators have much on their minds but protecting the health of millions must be a priority,” he said.

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